There's nothing better in college football than when conference play begins and teams start competing for league titles.
But before we get into late September and early October when league action kicks into high gear, nonconference play is all the rage. And, as usual, late November features in-state battles that could have College Football Playoff berths on the line. Plus, there's always the intriguing Notre Dame schedule to keep an eye on.
Let’s take a look at some of the biggest nonconference contests on the slate for 2014.
Saturday, Aug. 30
What does LSU's John Chavis have in store for the Wisconsin ground game?
LSU vs. Wisconsin (in Houston): If the Badgers are able to get by a Tigers squad that will be dominated by youth on the offensive side of the ball, the schedule sets up nicely for Gary Andersen's squad to be a dark horse contender for a spot in the first-ever College Football Playoff. Meanwhile, John Chavis will be looking to see what young defenders are ready to become stars for the Bayou Bengals. One thing is certain: this game will feature two clinics in the power run game.
Clemson at Georgia: There's a chance this game could top last year's clash, although Clemson's offense will be breaking in several new starters at the skill positions in addition to quarterback Cole Stoudt. Meanwhile, Jeremy Pruitt will be making his debut as Georgia's defensive coordinator, though the unit may be susceptible to Chad Morris and that Tigers offensive attack. Both teams have a chance to notch a big early season win. The Bulldogs are loaded on offense, but the Tigers finally have a defense capable of helping the team claim an ACC title.
Florida State vs. Oklahoma State (in Arlington): The Seminoles will kick off the defense of their national championship with a game against a Cowboys team that lost a lot of talent from a squad that thoroughly defeated then-unbeaten Baylor last fall. Will the Pokes be ready for the moment in Jerry’s World?
Saturday, Sept. 6
Michigan State at Oregon: This game is still going a bit under the radar nationally in my opinion, because this clash has a chance to be the nonconference game of the year. Despite losing some pieces to the NFL, Mark Dantonio and Pat Narduzzi's defense should still be stout. But it will face a Heisman Trophy-contending quarterback in Marcus Mariota and the high-powered offense overseen by Mark Helfrich and Scott Frost.
Virginia Tech at Ohio State: Hokies head coach Frank Beamer believes that he'll get improved play along the offensive line and at running back, two areas that the team has struggled in the past two seasons. That will be necessary if the Hokies have any chance of regaining upper-echelon status in the ACC this year. They will face one of the best defensive lines in the country, however, and the Urban Meyer Power Spread offense in this early season matchup. What does Hokies DC Bud Foster have cooked up for Braxton Miller and a revamped offensive line?
Saturday, Sept. 13
Texas vs. UCLA (in Arlington): One week after hosting BYU in a rematch from their debacle last season (Cougars QB Taysom Hill is still running wild against the Longhorns' rushing defense), the 'Horns face the biggest test of the very young Charlie Strong era when Jim L. Mora's Bruins arrive in the Lone Star State. The Longhorns should be both physically and mentally stronger under their new head coach, but Brett Hundley could be primed for a special season in his third year under center for the Bruins.
Thursday, Sept. 18
Auburn at Kansas State: The Wildcats have a chance to alter the course of the national championship picture with a win in the Little Apple against the BCS title runner-ups from last season. Gus Malzahn's offense is expected to be even better with Nick Marshall's improved passing game, playmakers all around as well as a veteran offensive line. But the K-State defense will be primed for this Thursday night showdown, especially after a bye week. Never overlook a Bill Snyder-coached squad.
Saturday, Sept. 20
Will Ryan Williams be under center when the 'Canes battle in Lincoln?
Miami (FL) at Nebraska: The Hurricanes have a very difficult September slate, and it continues with an old-school nonconference tilt in Lincoln against the Cornhuskers before a tricky home game against Duke. Once a fixture of national title and Orange Bowl games (including the classic 1984 tilt), these two programs are looking to become household names again. Will Ryan Williams be back under center for the 'Canes after his ACL injury, and are the Blackshirts really back for the 'Huskers?
Saturday, Oct. 4
Stanford at Notre Dame: The Cardinal lost a lot of talent on defense, but the type of athletes David Shaw and his staff have been able to bring in the last few recruiting cycles should keep the unit sound. However, Brian Kelly and the Irish will lean a bit more on the offense this season. And while he has not officially won the starting job, Everett Golson is primed for a huge 2014 campaign. The Irish took the contest in 2012 in the memorable "goal-line stand" game, while the Cardinal pounded out a seven-point victory a year ago.
Saturday, Oct. 18
Notre Dame at Florida State: A week after hosting a dangerous North Carolina squad, the Irish play the best team in the ACC in Tallahassee. While the oddsmakers don't love the Irish on the road, this should still be a test for the 'Noles. As mentioned above, ND should be prolific on offense. But the 'Noles have talent littered across the defense under new DC Charles Kelly. Offensively, Jameis Winston and Co. will put pressure on the ND defense all night. FSU has won the last two meetings in 2003 and 2011.
Friday, Oct. 24
BYU at Boise State: There are few things as satisfying as an exciting West Coast game on a Friday night, and this game shouldn't disappoint. The Cougars snagged a win last year in Provo, and this will be the third consecutive season these programs are meeting. First-year Broncos head coach Bryan Harsin will be looking for a marquee noncon win as he leads his team through the Mountain West schedule, but Cougars quarterback Taysom Hill will try to steal the show with his dual-threat ways.
Saturday, Nov. 8
Notre Dame at Arizona State: Are the Sun Devils a legitimate national title contender? We'll find out how they stack up against the Irish this season after falling to ND 37-34 a year ago in Arlington. Turnovers were the issue for the Sun Devils in that loss, as they gave the ball to the Irish three times. Will Todd Graham's team be in sync defensively by the time the calendar flips to November?
Saturday, Nov. 29
South Carolina at Clemson: Have you heard Steve Spurrier recently any time he has been around a mic? The Gamecocks' advantage over the Tigers in recent years is brought up most every time (the 'Cocks haven't lost to the Tigers since 2008), so Dabo Swinney and Co. will try to reverse the trend in this Palmetto State clash. How deeply entrenched (or not) will both teams be in the College Football Playoff race when they meet?
Florida at Florida State: How improved will the Gators be this fall? I believe that the addition of Kurt Roper will be huge for this team and help save Will Muschamp's job (much like Chad Morris did for Dabo Swinney a few years back), and Muschamp has stated that he believes this is his most talented team yet. But this Sunshine State game is in Tallahassee. Will the 'Noles be en route to a berth in the College Football Playoff?
Note: For the sake of some brevity, not every intriguing nonconference game is included on this list. However, these contests are also certainly worth watching: Boise State-Ole Miss (in Atlanta), Kentucky-Louisville, Michigan-Notre Dame, Arkansas-Texas Tech, Minnesota-TCU, Iowa-Pittsburgh, North Carolina-Notre Dame, Louisville-Notre Dame, Georgia Tech-Georgia and Notre Dame-USC.
Dave Miller, the college football editor for the National Football Post, is on Twitter @Miller_Dave.
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